A recent blog about the pro-junk mail lobby and its front group, Mail Moves America, drew many comments. Mail Moves America is a coalition of businesses that oppose efforts to create a legislated "Do Not Mail" list to protect citizens from being showered with unwanted junk mail,Junk mail is clearly a hot topic that arouses strong emotions on all sides. As electronic mail moves closer to overtaking paper mail as the medium of choice for written communication, it is clear that the Post Office remains an essential way to communicate and transfer goods. Still, many people are overwhelmed with junk mail and have little idea how to stop it.
Could a "Do Not Mail" list have unintended consequences?
Efforts to promote a national "Do Not Mail" list were spearheaded by ForestEthics, an environmental organization working to slow destruction of the Canadian Boreal Forest. The idea instantly took hold. For beleaguered consumers, a "Do Not Mail" list certainly sounds attractive: just sign up and junk mail would magically stop. But it isn't hard to imagine that such a list could also have unintended consequences. If someone blocked mail to a rented address, then moved and failed to notify the Post Office, for example, what problems could that pose for the new occupants? Since a Do Not Mail database would by its nature be extremely fluid, who would maintain that database, and how would that maintenance be funded? Writing and passing a Do Not Mail law at the federal level could, given the powerful lobbies involved, result in pro-industry legislation filled with loopholes that would permit junk mailers to continue business as usual.
The status quo is unacceptable
While creating a Do Not Mail list could present as many problems as solutions, the current "solutions" that marketers and others point to for reducing junk mail can also be intimidating and are simply inadequate. A few blog commentators pointed to the Direct Marketing Association's "Mail Preference Service" (MPS) as a solution. In addition to being poorly promoted and unknown to most consumers, the MPS can also be intimidating to use, and is fraught with annoying obstacles. The MPS Web site tells users they have to enter a credit card number to "authenticate and validate the consumer's identity through a no-charge transaction." Placing such sensitive personal financial information on the Web is a deal-breaker for many people, particularly older consumers. If you want to avoid using the Internet, you can register with MPS through the mail, but you have to print out a registration form, fill it in, mail it to DMA and include one dollar, in the form of a check or money order only. This is another annoying obstacle, particularly for people who have to go out and purchase a money order. And why should anyone have to pay to stop getting something they didn't want in the first place? To stop getting catalogs, MPS requires that you enter the exact name of every single catalog you want to stop receiving. Who keeps unwanted catalogs around, much less lists of them? MPS does not appear to cover nonprofit mailings, so to get names off nonprofit mailing lists, consumers have to contact each individual nonprofit by calling long distance to non-toll-free numbers, or sending first-class letters or postcards -- all at one's own expense. Other Web sites that offer to reduce junk mail tell the user to enter the customer number from each unwanted catalog's mailing label -- which again, people are unlikely to keep. Still other sites want $50 or more for their services.
Reducing junk mail clearly requires a substantial investment of effort, planning, time and money. DMA's "Mail Preference Service," and other services, just don't seem like adequate solutions to the problem.
Corporate practices contribute to the junk mail problem
Companies also constantly entice consumers with tempting special offers, coupons and discounts that are linked to address-harvesting schemes. In exchange for a discount, an offer of a freebie or the "chance" to win a big-ticket item, consumers are conned into turning over their personal contact information, which then lands them on innumerable mailing lists. Once you give money to a nonprofit organization, your name is often bought, sold, traded and circulated among innumerable other organizations who also then solicit you through the mail. Some refer to this as getting on the "sucker list." Information on how to avoid giving up personal information and ending up on this mail merry-go-round isn't readily available. There really is no practical education made available about how to recognize and avoid address-harvesting schemes, and such schemes just add to the ever-increasing junk mail burden we all must bear.
But a Do Not Mail list would make the Post Office go broke!
By some estimates, the Post Office derives 80% of its revenue from junk mail, leading some to argue that a Do Not Mail list will put the Post Office out of business. A similar theory was advanced by the tobacco industry and its allies for decades to stall the advance of smoke-free laws. We were told, over and over again by a variety of experts and studies, that ending smoking in bars and restaurants would drive businesses into the ground. It turned out that wasn't the case. Most people wanted smoke-free bars and restaurants, and experience has now shown time and time again that after a smoke-free law goes into effect, there is an initial shock while people figure out how to deal with the new situation, and then business returns, often better than before.
The same will probably be true of a Do Not Mail list. When fax machines were invented, no one argued against using them because they would hurt the Post Office. No one is saying don't use email because it hurts the Post Office. Fed Ex and UPS do hurt the Post Office, but no one is arguing they should be banned. All of these products and services exist because there is a demand for them. Blocking people from obtaining some form of control over the kind of mail they receive wastes time, money and resources, and is probably a futile exercise in the long run, since the demand for such control is strong and growing.
Let's also not forget the fact that the Post Office has been losing money even without a Do Not Mail list, as evidenced by rapidly increasing postal rates in recent years. The Post Office is run as a for-profit business, and it appears to be clinging tightly to a losing business model. Perhaps it is time for the Post Office start figuring how it can better serve people in the Twenty First Century, and what services they could provide that people really do want. One thing is for certain: it sure isn't more junk mail.
Viable alternatives to a Do Not Mail List?
There may be viable alternatives to a Do-Not-Mail bill that are more targeted, and achieve the same ends, but with fewer unintended consequences: Congress could pass a law requiring that all advertising mail be accompanied by a pre-paid postcard, or bear a toll-free number (in a minimum size font) to opt out of the mailing list. The Post Office could also announce that it will stop delivering mail that is addressed only to "Occupant" or "Current Resident."
One commentator on the original junk mail blog brought up the case of Rowan v. the United States Post Office, decided in 1970, which arguably affirmed citizens' rights to refuse unsolicited advertising through the mail. Under Rowan, the Supreme Court held that the law "allows the addressee unreviewable discretion to decide whether he wishes to receive any further material from a particular sender" and that "a vendor does not have a constitutional right to send unwanted material into someone's home, and a mailer's right to communicate must stop at the mailbox of an unreceptive addressee." It would seem that all that is left under Rowan is for the Post Office to create a mechanism through which citizens can refuse unsolicited advertising in the mail. While Rowan gave people this right, the junk-addicted Post Office has not moved this forward.
So how can we promote serious consideration of a variety of options to solve this problem in a way that will really make a difference? For starters, people can file complaints about the junk mail problem, accompanied by proposed alternatives, at the Web site of Postal Regulatory Commission at www.prc.gov. You can also write to Nanci Langley, Director, Public Affairs and Government Relations, Postal Regulatory Commission, 901 New York Avenue NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20268-0001. The Postal Regulatory Commission is completely independent of the Postal Service, and handles broad complaints about the mail. I'm told they take complaints seriously. People who still think a Do Not Mail list is a good idea can sign a petition in favor of it at www.DoNotMail.org. ForestEthics also offers an easy-to-use tool on their Web site to help reduce junk mail now, with no credit card required, and no fees.
If nothing else, efforts to enact a Do Not Mail list are drawing badly needed attention to the widespread desire of consumers "take back" their mail boxes from marketers and advertisers, and reduce the damaging amount of waste generated by junk mail. Sooner or later, one way or another, the people will achieve their goal.